Has Britain Replaced the U.S. as Iran's 'Little Satan'?

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Iranian students burn U.S. and British flags outside the British embassy in Tehran on June 23, 2009

If the number of protesters on the streets of Tehran has thinned in recent days — a result of the bloody crackdown by police and militia that continued in parts of the capital on June 24 — there's little sign of a letup in Iran's overseas offensive. British passport holders "had a role" in the violent clashes sparked by Iran's disputed election on June 12, Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei told the Fars news agency on June 24. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announced that Tehran might downgrade its diplomatic ties with the U.K. The twin swipes came a day after Iran banished two British diplomats from the country, accusing the pair of spying. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who dismissed the allegations as "absolutely without foundation," promptly banished two Iranian diplomats from London.

Foreign powers from the U.S. to Israel have been rebuked by the Iranian regime in recent days. When U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Iran to respect the "will of its people" amid violence that has claimed at least 18 lives since the poll, Tehran chided him for "meddling." But Iran has reserved much of its vitriol for Britain. "The diplomats who have talked to us with courtesy up to now have in the past few days taken the masks away from their faces and are showing their true image," Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, said in a speech on June 19. "And the most evil of them is the British government."

With the U.S. being the focus of the bulk of Iran's ire over the past three decades, why is Iran picking on the U.K. now? Long a hot spot for anti-regime Iranian opposition and a font of support for human rights and reform in Iran, Britain has enjoyed little favor from Tehran in recent years. The launch in January of a BBC Persian-language TV service, thanks largely to funds from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has further riled authorities in Iran. The news channel — beaming images of the recent protests via satellite from London, despite efforts by the Iranian regime to block it — has already drawn millions of viewers. An announcement last week that the British government had frozen some $1.6 billion of Iranian assets under international sanctions imposed in response to the country's nuclear program probably hasn't helped relations either.

Moreover, in attempting to point a finger at Britain for its troubles, the Iranian government can tap a rich vein of mistrust for its former imperial ruler. Many Iranians remember the British-brokered Treaty of Gulistan, under which Iran was forced to give up land to Russia in 1813, as one of the most humiliating episodes in their country's history. Hostilities sparked again in 1941, when the U.K. invaded Iran and exiled the country's leader on suspicion of pro-German sympathies. Furthering the mistrust, when Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq dared to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company — in which Britain had a majority stake — British and U.S. security services mounted a coup to oust the leader in 1953.

For all the antipathy, though, scapegoating the U.K. may have as much to do with Iran's reluctance to lay into the U.S. President Barack Obama's overtures to the wider Middle East — Washington announced on June 24 plans to return an ambassador to Syria for the first time in four years — and the specific offer of talks with Tehran "has wrong-footed the regime," says Adam Hug, policy director at London's Foreign Policy Centre. In that context, "Britain's closeness to the U.S. enables it to be used as a proxy — 'Little Satan' to America's 'Great Satan.' "